The Architecture of Soup

Flavor-packed soups rich in texture and color that will warm you up—and fill you up.

November 9, 2012

the architecture of soup—4 great soup recipesMany cooks will say that it’s the stock or broth that’s the keystone of a great soup—and they’re right to a certain extent. But if fretting over making the perfect liquid base for a soup is preventing you from getting a pot onto the stove, it’s just not worth the effort. Turn the focus, instead, to the soup’s substance, and create dishes that are thick with chunky vegetables, beans and grains, and bite-size pieces of meat and fish. Soups to sink your teeth into. These are the soups that are going to get you and your family through the gloomiest days of winter. As for the stock, well, for soup in a hurry, purchased organic broth—or even water (with a little extra seasoning)—works just fine.

What’s so wonderful about soup is how forgiving it is. Just about anything can be tossed into a pot and stretched to make a meal. In fact, humans have been feeding themselves this way since harnessing the power of fire. Look into the fridge, pantry, and freezer and see what can be simmered together to make a meal. This is a long tradition among soup makers that crosses cultures, countries, and centuries.


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What unites the following four recipes, from four different continents, is their architecture: a sturdy structure of texture, tradition, and timing. They are also predominantly vegetarian because that’s the way I enjoy a bowl of soup, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t be enriched with some meat. What’s especially fitting about these dishes is that their construction continues after being ladled into bowls, in the form of flavorful garnishes, which turn the making of the soup into a communal project, with everyone adding their own touch at the table.

These soups are truly hearty, not just in texture but also in composition. They can take almost any amount of tinkering. Can’t find yuca for the sancocho? Use potatoes instead. No smoked haddock for the Cullen skink? Opt for smoked trout, as I’ve done many times before (but note that the trout does give this otherwise white soup a rather rosy hue). If harissa proves hard to find, go here for Deborah Madison’s harissa recipe from our April-May 2010 issue. You can avoid such substitutions, however, with some planning. Freeze cut-up cobs of corn at summer’s end to have them ready months later for the sancocho; try preserving lemons for the lablabi or pickling cabbage for the kimchi chigae. Flexibility and forethought will help you become a master architect in the kitchen.

The success of a soup lies in the warm memories it conjures up. We fondly recall the love implicit in a bowl of homemade chicken-noodle soup when home sick from school. In another country, that bowl might take its warmth from spicy harissa instead, but it was constructed with the same love. The culinary ways of a particular country or family are what ensure that the raw materials of the soup shape up to something special.

the architecture of soup—lablabiLablabi

Incredibly easy to make, lablabi is a chickpea stew from Tunisia that captures the sunny flavors of the southern Mediterranean. It's eaten at any time of the day, but particularly at breakfast, and is prepared with Tunisia's culinary trinity of harissa (a fiery red-pepper paste), preserved lemons, and olive oil. This recipe comes from Majid Mahjoub, who manages an olive-oil business in Tunisia and produces exquisite organic condiments under the label Les Moulins Mahjoub. For this soup, you do most of the construction at the table with your guests, making it perfect for a party.

For the soup:

  • 4 15.5-ounce cans of chickpeas, about 6 cups
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 slices of day-old bread, broken into small pieces


For the garnishes:

  • 1 preserved lemon, sliced
  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 6 teaspoons rinsed capers, preferably salted
  • 6 teaspoons Tunisian harissa
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil


Strain and rinse the chickpeas and add them to a 4-quart pot with 6 cups of water, the garlic, and the salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the chickpeas are heated through. To serve, place one crumbled slice of bread in each bowl and fill with the hot broth and chickpeas. Garnish with slices of preserved lemon and sun-dried tomatoes, a pinch of cumin, a teaspoon each of harissa (more or less to taste) and capers, and a healthy drizzle of olive oil.

Makes 6 servings

the architecture of soup—KimchiMother-in-Law’s Kimchi Stew

"Korea is well known for its barbecue, but it really is soup country," explains Lauryn Chun, author of The Kimchi Cookbook. Of all its soups, this chigae, or stew, is as comforting to Chun as chicken-noodle soup. It does have a touch of spicy heat from the kimchi, the fermented vegetable relish that is the national dish of Korea, but it is quick and easy to make and will come to comfort you regularly on miserable winter nights. If tofu is not your thing, you can add leftover beef, mackerel, sardines, white fish, pork, or chicken.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup butter, divided
  • 2 cups Napa cabbage kimchi, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup of reserved kimchi
  • juice or water
  • 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
  • 14 ounces medium-firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 6 scallions, green part only, cut into 2-inch pieces


In a 4-quart pan, warm the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the kimchi and cook until it becomes more translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the kimchi juice or water, reduce the heat to medium, cover the pot, and continue to cook for 8 to 10 minutes, opening the lid occasionally to make sure the kimchi is not dry or burning. Add 6 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the soy sauce and stir. Add the tofu and cook uncovered until the tofu is fluffy and has absorbed the kimchi flavors, about 10 minutes. Stir in the scallion greens and cook 1 more minute. Ladle into bowls and serve immediately.

Make 6 servings

Adapted from The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make and Eat Kimchi

the architecture of soup—sancocho zuletanoSancocho Zuletaño

"I love sancocho!" enthuses Fernando Polanco, the general director of the luxurious hotel and eco-lodge Hacienda Zuleta in the northern sierra of Ecuador. Of both Ecuadorian and Dominican descent (his grandfather was president of Ecuador), Polanco knows well the many variations of this much-loved heirloom soup, which is eaten throughout Latin America. The hacienda's meatless Ecuadorian version is distinctively light and refreshing, but the chunks of root vegetables cooked in broth make it plenty hearty. For something even more substantial, feel free to add hefty chunks of cooked beef or chicken, as is typical for sancocho.

For the soup:

  • 6 cups beef, chicken, or vegetable broth
  • 3 cobs of corn, cut into 1-inch-wide rounds
  • 1 pound green plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1/2 cup diced carrots
  • 1/2 cup peas
  • 1 pound yuca, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks


For the refrito:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper


For the garnish:

  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges


1. In a 4-quart pot, bring the broth to a boil. Add the corn, green plantains, and carrots, and bring back to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.

2. In the meantime, make the refrito. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 10 to 12 minutes, until the onions are soft and just starting to turn brown. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Add the refrito, peas, and yuca to the soup and simmer for another 20 minutes, until the yuca is soft. Taste for seasonings.

4. Ladle the soup into bowls, making sure each person has equal amounts of corn. Garnish with a generous sprinkling of cilantro and a lime wedge


the architecture of soup—4 great soup recipesCullen Skink

This rich fish soup hails from the eastern coastal village of Cullen in northern Scotland. There is a dispute about the origin of the name—does skink mean "essence" in Gaelic or derive from the German word Schinken for ham? It is agreed, however, that the soup was first made with the scrapings of beef from a cow's front legs. This change in ingredients points to the fluid versatility of soups and the resourcefulness of people making do with the little that they have. Suzanne O'Connor, head chef of the Scottish Cafe and Restaurant at the National Galleries in Edinburgh, renowned for her use of seasonal, local products, shares this recipe.

  • 12 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 1/2 cups diced leeks, whites only, divided
  • 1 pound peeled potatoes, divided
  • 2 pounds smoked haddock, divided
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Salt and white pepper


1. Melt the butter in a 4-quart pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion slices, the celery, and 3/4 cup of the leeks. Cook until soft, about 15 minutes, making sure they don’t color.

2. Slice 1/2 pound of the potatoes as thinly as possible and roughly chop 1 pound of the haddock. Add to the pot. Stir in the milk and bay leaves. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the potatoes are very soft. Remove the bay leaves and blend the soup in a blender or with an immersion blender until smooth. Return to the pot, add the cream, and heat gently and thoroughly. Add salt and white pepper.

3. Prepare the garnish: Dice the remaining potatoes and haddock. Cook the potatoes in salted, boiling water until they are soft but still hold their shape, about 5 minutes. Blanch the remaining diced leeks for 1 to 2 minutes, until soft.

4. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with diced potatoes, leeks, and haddock.

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine December/January 2013